With Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ latest career retrospective Lovely Creatures out next Friday May 5 and the release of the Australian thriller Bad Girl in cinemas this week, we spoke to Cave’s right hand man and soundtrack creator Warren Ellis. Also known for his work in such iconic bands as The Dirty Three and Grinderman, Ellis has been composing for film since Praise (1998), often with long time collaborator Cave (The Proposition). Last year alone his scores formed the musical background to two Academy Award nominated films – Mustang, and Hell Or High Water. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to Ellis about his work, his inspiration, and the various different aspects of his musical career.
The appeal of Bad Girl was obvious to Ellis, it allowed him to work in both a genre and style that was different than his previous scores.
“I loved the script when I read it,” he says. “It was very energetic and youthful. It was different from a lot of films that I had done in the past, a different genre as well. After Mustang, this was a different kind of film about young women, that gave me the opportunity to do something musically different as well. This wasn’t a bunch of men wondering around a desert or apocalyptic wasteland.”
This changed the way Ellis worked, allowing him to experiment with a minimalist approach. “The film had a very small budget, and I had to work in a different kind of way,” he considers. “That was appealing to me as well rather than the usual set-up. I wanted to do it on tour with a laptop and a synthesizer, and do it while moving around. So when I was on tour with the Dirty Three (who played two shows on Australia’s east coast last year), I used the time to rough something together, and later met with the director to nut something out.”
For this approach Ellis drew inspiration from an unlikely source. “I definitely liked the approach of the old Mad Max film,” he reveals. “Economical, functional, and very efficient.”
The end result is a tight synth soundtrack that perfectly heightens the tension of the film. “You can set things up and make it work,” he says. “When we did Ocean Songs with The Dirty Three, we wanted to make a quiet record. Something that didn’t play louder than an acoustic drum kit in the room. That changed everything, just a simple gesture like that. If you make constraints with yourself, it changes things. It’s an added challenge, but can be a strength of the work too.”
That variety of work has kept things fresh for Ellis, allowing him to continue to creatively produce music in a number of different ways. “Hopefully I bring something different to everything I’m doing,” he says. “OK, sometimes I’m playing the violin out front, tossing my cookies.”
Despite the differing styles of performance, Ellis admits that they all share a similarity. “Primarily doing the same thing – advance what I do in music, and continue on in the same language. I’ve always loved playing live and I love creating music. Film gives me the possibility to make a lot of music. It enables me to keep creating and hopefully keep evolving.”
On the eve of the release of the three-disc career retrospective Lovely Creatures, compiled with the help of long time Bad Seed Mick Harvey, Ellis will continue to be in the spotlight for a while to come this year. And with one score being mastered, another in the works, and a Bad Seeds tour about to begin in the US, Ellis certainly knows how to keep himself busy.
“It always surprises me I’ve made a career out of it (music),” he says. “From the first time I started playing, it felt like I was doing the right thing. Always amazed I get another year out of it. I was astounded when I made my first record, it was unfathomable – now it’s almost 30 years later.”